Friday, 1:30pm
11 December 2009

Tony Meeuwissen in Stroud

‘The eye of an illustrator with the mind of a designer’

I’ve been stopped in my tracks by particularly intricate, amusing or just stunningly brilliant Penguin book covers more times than I can remember, writes Steve Hare, and it seemed to me that every time I checked out the name of the designer, it was one of Tony Meeuwissen’s.

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His Woodbine’s packet for Billy Liar (above), the fly created from twigs, feathers, seeds and an egg for The Penguin Dictionary of British Natural History (top), and the wonderfully surreal The Moscow Puzzles (below) are all typical examples of his extraordinary and rare talent.

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But there’s much more to his work over the past several decades than Penguin covers, of course, and it ranges from a psychedelic design for the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request (see the Eye Blog ‘Not in their elements’) to some of the best loved stamps for the Royal Mail (below and bottom).

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More recently he has taken to producing his own books, such as the children’s book Remarkable Animals, and The Key to the Kingdom, a book and a set of transformation playing cards that took three years to realise.

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Tony fills the space with the most intricate detail in a manner that bears comparison with Escher, Magritte and the best traditional Japanese art. Above all, he manages to do this with a constant wry smile. The work is full of reference, allusion and, most of all, familiar things in unfamiliar or entirely wrong situations.

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David Pelham, Penguin’s art director from the late 1960s to the early 80s was the man who commissioned Tony for those book covers, and his reasons for doing so eloquently sum up Tony’s unique talents: ‘I found his approach to illustration particularly suited to the size limitations imposed by a Penguin cover. The thing about Tony is that he has the eye of an illustrator and the mind of a designer. Having first searched out the essence of his subject-matter, he will then – seemingly effortlessly – manifest his thoughts into wonderfully composed and formalised, yet elaborate images: a combination that allows him to solve visual problems with remarkable originality, skill and panache. A searching and original mind may come up with a good pictorial idea, but it was my experience in those pre-computer times that few had the ability to convey a notion from the mind's eye to the drawing board with such clarity, originality and wit as Tony.’

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There is a final chance (for the moment) to see the full range of these talents at his retrospective exhibition, in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Alongside the intricate finished works are thumbnail sketches, roughs and early drafts, giving an insight into his methods and ideas as they take shape. The exhibition represents a happy and perfect combination of art and craft, design and illustration, hand and eye.

The Tony Meeuwissen: Retrospective was originally shown at the Museum in the Park, Stroud, 4-31 October 2009. A smaller version of the exhibition continues until 19 December at the Subscription Rooms, Stroud. It is hoped that the exhibition will continue touring during 2010.

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